Retrospective: Phantasm — Death and Dreamscapes

It’s hard to think of a decade with more wall-to-wall horror classics than the 1970s that still cling so tightly to the cultural id. There’s the shocking display of demonic possession in The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978) setting the blueprint for the slasher genre, and the surreal nature of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) just to name but a handful of the many defining horror films of the decade. Still, even forty years after its release, Phantasm (1979) is a 70s cult horror movie that’s still worthy of remembrance and in a league all its own.

Phantasm. Dir. Don Coscarelli.

The story begins with Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) attending a funeral for their friend when Jody’s younger brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) starts to notice strange occurrences at the funeral home. Short, hooded figures scurry around making monstrous noises and the funeral’s creepy mortician known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) displays strange behavior. Mike tries to tell Jody to no avail, as he’s ready to leave Mike in someone else’s care and hit the road.

Things escalate when Mike breaks into the funeral home and uncovers a plot by The Tall Man to rob the cemetery’s graves and turn the dead into his unwitting slaves, finally having enough proof for Jody and Reggie to confront The Tall Man. Towards the end, things take a turn for the surreal as questions are raised as to whether or not the phantasmagoric events taking place are real or in fact some kind of coping mechanism for Mike. Every scene in the film could just as easily been some kind of fever dream, which neatly sums up what seeing the movie for the first time feels like.

Phantasm. Dir. Don Coscarelli.

Phantasm has elements of surrealism, classic horror, and even science fiction is thrown in, blending together to form a wholly unique experience when at odds with the very human fears of death and familial abandonment. If you’ve ever been a younger brother, you’ll empathize with Mike’s fear of his older brother leaving him behind. Thornbury’s performance is everything you’d expect out of a cool older brother. Handsome and confident, Jody takes charge when he realizes there’s something to Mike’s story and drives around in the ultimate ’70s muscle car (a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda) when he’s not having freestyle guitar jam sessions with his pal Reggie.

Reggie, who has become something of a nemesis in his own right to The Tall Man in the series, is here something of the everyman caught in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. It’s pretty clear why with his attitude to fling himself into danger for his friends despite being an ordinary person in every sense has made the character an unlikely, though beloved horror hero. Baldwin’s Mike feels like exactly what a gawky thirteen-year-old boy would be like in the late ’70s. He’s the only character who can see what is really going on, perhaps because he is still a child in a world of adults who are all too ready to overlook the bizarreness right in front of their faces.

Phantasm. Dir. Don Coscarelli.

The Tall Man, as played by Angus Scrimm, remains one of the most iconic figures in horror history. Scrimm, who stood at an already impressive 6’4 wore smaller suits and platform shoes to look even taller, which only adds to the dreamlike nature of the film. Scrimm, who looks like he stepped right out of the pages of an old EC horror comic, relentlessly pursues Mike and his compatriots and is just as unstoppable as death itself. With his inimitable glower, it’s hard not to feel intimidated whenever The Tall Man furrows one brow and his other eye pops as if to focus on his prey.

The unknowability of The Tall Man’s plans adds another sinister edge to the character. Though clearly not of this world, not much else is known of his origins or motivations making him all the more dangerous. Besides having a level of inhuman strength and invulnerability, he uses hooded dwarves and metallic spheres that fly around and have the nasty habit of attaching themselves to a victim’s head and drilling into their skull. The Tall Man’s array of strange powers and creatures at his disposal is so unique in the pantheon of horror movie villains, it’s hard to think of another antagonist that comes close to his uniqueness.

PHANTASM, from left: Bill Thornbury, Angus Scrimm, 1979. © Well Go USA /Courtesy Everett Collection
Phantasm. Dir. Don Coscarelli.

It’s surprising Phantasm‘s usage of a mortuary and funeral home hadn’t been done much earlier. The mortuary taps into the movie’s themes of death. Director Don Coscarelli was inspired by the customs of how Americans treat death and funeral rites. Largely a process that takes place away from prying eyes, bodies are prepared and filled with fluids by a mortician before being ready for a funeral service. It’s a strange trade to be in, and the funeral home/mortuary is just as unknown as the horrors of a haunted house in Phantasm.

Phantasm eventually evolved into a sprawling cult series of varying quality, but its legacy as a dreamy, dreary, and bizarre original horror film is sealed. It was remastered not too long ago for 4k resolution just in time for the release of the latest entry in the series Phantasm: Ravager (2016). Sadly in January of that same year, Angus Scrimm passed away, playing The Tall Man for one final time. A titan of the genre, Scrimm appeared in numerous roles in horror films since donning the iconic black suit in 1979 and it’s difficult imagining the genre without his presence. Perhaps it’s fitting that the original film that started Scrimm’s career as a master of horror can now be enjoyed by an entirely new generation who have yet to descend into the nightmarish world of Phantasm. It’s an undisputed horror classic and still stands as a pillar of late 1970s horror just as much today.

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